It is kind of funny that when I was 22, all I wanted in life was to leave my problems at the time behind. I could list off everything that was wrong in my life, and I knew that the day I got married and moved out, all of those specific problems would be gone. I suppose that that’s what happened. I hadn’t liked my job, I was stifled at home, I was made to go to church, and before that, I had been significantly unhappy at college. I never had very big dreams; I was so focused on wanting that all to end that I hadn’t really thought of what I would do after.
When I was engaged and pursuing a Communication Studies degree at Grove City College, all I really wanted was to be married and living on my own with a real job. It was like the stereotypical American Dream, but with cats instead of kids. When I pictured my “happy future”, I saw myself sitting on my own couch in my own house with my husband, maybe watching TV. It was simple, but it was all I wanted.
I can’t express to you how happy I am that this came true. Of course, life isn’t perfect, but when I feel down, this is what I remind myself. On Sundays, I don’t set an alarm. I sleep in, sip my coffee, and sit on the couch with my husband. Before COVID, we would sometimes spend Sunday mornings out eating breakfast and visiting bookstores. Instead of being forced to go to church, I wouldn’t have even remembered that it was Lent if it wasn’t for Twitter. I have the privilege of only encountering creationist arguments when I go searching for them for entertainment rather than having them forced on me. I have an office full of bookshelves proudly displaying the books that I once hid in my closet.
Most of all, before I was married, I had to choose between sleeping next to my husband at his apartment or my beloved cat at my house. At college, I slept alone. Now, I sleep sandwiched between them most nights. Even something as simple as sleeping surrounded by my loved ones was unattainable most years, so I try not to take it for granted.
Even during quarantine while we both work from home, this is what I am grateful for. I think of my past self who only ever wanted the simple life I have now. I think of my friend who is also in her mid-20s but whose family has as tight a grip on her beliefs and relationship as mine did four years ago. I think of people whose lives are dominated by the chaos that is their children, as I pick up yet another book that I can enjoy all evening.
I even think of social media influencers, whose every flaw is scrutinized by thousands, and my failed attempt to gain an Instagram following last year. Now, with my miniscule following on my private Instagram, I can post what I want with little to no thought beforehand. I feel the freedom of not being judged by strangers and not caring what people think. Everyone knows I am an atheist. There’s not a line where Atheist Me ends and The Rest of Me begins. I don’t even think about it. What you see is what you get. This would have been unfathomable to me up until last year.
Even so, I think it is hard for people to wrap our minds around the idea that you don’t just “arrive” one day. You don’t wake up and find that your life is now perfect, like the happy ending of a movie. And even if the biggest obstacles you’ve faced are behind you, perhaps your brain has become accustomed to feeling the anxiety that you felt being an atheist at a Christian college. Perhaps for years your only solace was your little dorm, your side of the room, or just your own bed, safe from all the challenges to your identity’s validity.
Actually, my fondest memories of college were the evenings I spent at my husband’s dorm at his secular university, and later, his apartment. I was away from the judgment, the worship services that would play directly outside my window, and the cacophony of the dining hall. The noisy lives of others were always my reminder that I was not in my safe place, and so my anxiety would flare up. I began to wear ear plugs when I was out and about, which were especially handy when I earned my final two chapel credits by attending a worship concert.
Being overwhelmed by noise when it triggers your anxiety is a feeling that goes through your whole body. When I was at the dining hall, it would help if I could sit near the wall and have a booth to myself to trick myself into believing I was in a safe, private space. But what do I do when the sound continues on still, when I am sitting in my office working, in my recliner reading, on my couch watching my favorite show, or sleeping between my kitty and my husband like I’d always dreamed of? One could argue that it’s petty to complain that your neighbors on the other side of the wall in your duplex don’t find the motivation to discipline their screeching toddler, but what I’ve discovered is that this is a legitimate grievance.
My home is my safe space. I’m safe from the oppression of religion, of the judgment of others, of feeling that I have to hide who I am. One thing I am not safe from is anxiety. Other than seeing a therapist and trying out CBD, I don’t see a way to permanently make my anxiety go away. I know that there are times when it flares up and times that it dies down. The last time that I remember it being this crippling was when I knew I was an atheist in a place where it was simply not allowed, and I could not tell anyone. Now, my anxiety regarding the pandemic, social injustice, and in my personal life is compounded when it is triggered by sounds in my very own home.
All this is to say that I’m acknowledging that what I’m feeling is valid. It is not petty. I can be glad to have my past problems behind me and also be aware that mental health issues that may have come from them will probably always follow me. I want to tell you that if you are feeling anxiety, it is also valid. This applies even if you, like me, are (still) in quarantine and employed, and feel some guilt for your self-pity because you know that others have it worse. Whether you think your problems are “bad enough”, I firmly believe that everyone would benefit from therapy, especially if you are questioning if you really have anxiety—if you, like me, have ever wondered if it “counts”.
Your mental, physical, and emotional peace is worth defending. That might mean picking up and moving. It could mean setting a boundary with a loved one or unfollowing someone on social media (even if you remain friends in real life). You’ve made it this far. Even as the pandemic eventually sees its end and life changes once again for better or for worse, there will be new challenges to face, tragedies to mourn, joys to celebrate, and feelings to feel. Even as each chapter ends, the book of life goes on.